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Dylan Sharp: We must be careful not to portray the countryside as opposed to growth

Dylan Sharpe is Head of Media Relations for the Countryside Alliance and the former Head of Press for the NO to AV campaign.

Screen shot 2012-03-21 at 19.33.57The Coalition’s well-meaning attempt to redesign Britain’s planning laws has, to date, succeeded in doing little more than angering all parties concerned. What should have been a relatively straightforward simplification of an onerous and roundly disliked 1200-page document, has turned into a protracted war pitting countryside groups against housing developers, with Conservative MPs being drawn hither and thither depending largely on where their constituency was located.

From the very start the green groups – chief among them the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the National Trust – have been strident in their opposition to the Government’s planning changes. In the course of that opposition it is fair to say that the new framework has often been misrepresented, with the words “concreting over the countryside” and “developer’s charter” all too common in quotes and position papers. The Government, however, cannot be totally absolved of blame. From Bob Neill’s claim of a “choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers,” to Greg Clark accusing the opposition of “nihilistic selfishness,” throughout this entire saga the first recourse of both sides has been to hyperbole and aggression.

All of which is rather depressing for those caught in the middle. If you thought seeing Chris Huhne and Vince Cable sat around a Cabinet table with William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith was a strange coalition; on Saturday the Countryside Alliance partnered with Friends of the Earth, Shelter and the Town and Country Planning Association to call for a more reasoned and considered debate on planning, and one which didn’t pitch the countryside in opposition to economic growth. As has been the way in this fracas, our missive was to be outshone on Sunday by a letter signed by the likes of Liz Hurley and the brother of the Duchess of Cornwall, which placed the countryside in direct opposition to growth. It’s not who shouts louder in this debate, but who gets the celebs to shout for them.

The biggest shame is that the first draft of the planning framework was flawed but not irreparable. Replacing 1000 pages of protections for the countryside with a scantly-defined “presumption in favour of sustainable development” was always likely to raise heckles, and when the "Brownfield first clause" was also found to be missing, the green groups geared-up for war. But early signals on the redrafted planning rules – due to be released this week alongside the budget – suggest that the Government has listened to the concerns of those who feared the worst and is taking action to produce a more palatable document that rectifies the two glaring errors listed above.

When the economy is struggling to return to growth and the planning regulations are portrayed as being a barrier to this aim, the temptation will be to dismiss those opposed to a pared-down planning system as nimbys whose chief concern is frustrating the Treasury. It is possible, however, to simplify the process of developing without sacrificing the protections for the countryside. We should therefore be more careful not to paint this as a battle between two sides and try a more constructive dialogue. The rural economy is still critical to Britain’s future growth, and a planning system that allows rural businesses to grow while keeping the countryside free from unnecessary and unsuitable development will be of benefit to all.


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